I Watched Last Tango In Paris.

steve cuocci
6 min readJan 27, 2017

I watched this film with its legacy heavily clouding the air. The controversial sex and exposure pieces on the movie far outweighed anything I could find in terms of what sorts of story elements or Bernardo Bertolucci style notes to look for. Anything I tried to brief myself with prior to the viewing was all about just how forward the scenes of “love making” were (namely ‘the butter scene’) and how “grossed out” many of the people were while trying to take in this trailblazing piece of cinema. My eyes here are so strangely different than someone sitting down to see this in 1972. Sex is so liberal and available at any given point in all levels of media that this film feels like yet another anonymous love story, though brilliantly acted. That’s not to say that Jason Biggs screwing an apple pie is meant to be compared to an anal rape scene by any means. But the bare breasts, the frequent sex scenes and the regular filthy bedside manner that Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider employ is a bit strong, but nowhere near cage rattling. Not anymore, anyway.

Brando creates a fiery performance as Paul, an American widower living in Paris. His display is that of a true madman. Sometimes it can even feel a bit overwrought. For me, especially without much context as early in the film, it’s hard to tell if this is going to take the pace of a runaway mine cart into Nicholas Cage territory. At what point do you cross the line from moving and powerful performance of a man possessed to then cresting into Face Off levels of absurdity? Right out of the gate, Brando is screaming at the top of his lungs at the volume of passing trains. The storm continues in his interactions with his ex-wife’s mother as they discuss the funeral plans. He throws fists at a door, something so far fetched that I assume it had to be adlibbed. Again, out of context, it’s difficult to tell if this is going to be an overly silly moment of overreaction or the true encapsulation of rage. It’s Brando, I trusted it, and rode the wave out. His performance stands the test.

There’s an incredibly moving scene when Brando goes and visits his dead wife and speaks to her in a bed of flowers. We learn that she’s committed suicide with a razor in a bathtub. He has openly having a confessional in front of her. A complete and limitless series of admissions are addressed beside her body. He rambles to her openly. It quickly goes from hate and betrayal to how he’s been wounded, heavily hurt by her actions while with him. We learn much about Paul’s character here, and we see many of his motivations fleshed out in whole. She lied to him and he continued to trust her, to love her. He swam in her lies and loved her. Truly one of the most powerful scenes of loss. Anger and trust and faith and devotion utterly raw and completely bare and exposed. Brando here showing why he is forever impressive.

As we explore the spontaneous and anonymous romance of Paul and Jeanne, it starts to become strange that Paul is so much older than her and his displays still interest her. He acts foolishly, making monkey noises to watch her laugh and entertain her. His jokes are childish and raw. His mid 40s-mid 50s customs seem like they would be terribly off putting to a 19 year old girl. Again, this could be time period speaking. It seems that so many of these young women guard their sexuality and want it to be noticed only by specific audiences, namely those they’re trying to attract. Someone not in their deliberate demographic noticing their outfits or their outward attractive displays are often given a “this wasn’t meant for you” reaction if it’s mentioned. Their sexuality and sex can be used as a leash or even as a penance, sometimes as a “thanks” for keeping them around. In exchange for support, here’s my body in vice. Paul’s adventurous nature here could be enough to garner her attraction, and also an escape from her strange relationship with her fiance, who is trying to make a film about her. We do get a brief insight into her motivations in life, as she seems to fear growing older and adores being stuck in childhood, so there’s a freudian level there that might apply. The anonymity could be enough of a rush for her, enough of an escape from her life that she is chasing that liberation that comes in the shape of Paul.

Also strange is that in these particular fictions (Last Tango In Paris) and even in Henry Miller’s books (the Tropics, yes, but also currently reading Sexus) that these women are (A) too tolerant of these terrible louts of men who don’t listen to them, who beg and plead for sex, and later can’t be found for genuine relations that weren’t based in the corporeal and (B) so open to these flagrant sexual advances from men that weren’t openly attractive or desirable, but instead simply courageous. Is that enough to stir the libido? Perhaps it’s that these stories came before the time of feminine empowerment or respect? Or maybe these behaviors are still just as prevalent and liberal, but just that I’ve walked in different paths.

The film has strikingly different styles. From the darkness in the apartment, which feels dreadful and anonymous, the same the way the affair plays out. And during the scenes that Thomas brings Jeanne along on are very Godard. Biographical. Organic. Active. And in the post-apartment phase, at the dance hall, when they meet in the street, things feel ALIVE. Vibrant. Well lit. When they meet outside and he begins to open himself to her, it’s like a whole new film will open up entirely.

Thomas (Jeanne’s fiance) is making a film that reminds me so much of a Godard film. It could be the film, and her narration through those parts. The ‘reading a journal aloud’ cadence, the daydreaming type of explanations. It could simply be the french language on display. But it makes me appreciate the Godard films so much more. The lightness and whimsy of films that weren’t simple comedies but could make you laugh. They’re just romantic on many layers, not only the love between characters, but also the love of one’s self, and the romance between the entire cast and the city and country that they were set in. Real-time “adventures” without over the top settings or actions. Just a pure love for the city and country and each other.

This film and its characters are proof that no matter how little emotion you intend to donate to an interaction, you’re still going to begin a timeless sinking the more that you exist within it. A quicksand of the heart and soul. Your investment is unavoidable. And even if you feel that it’s ‘just for fun’, these barbs will forever have leave their lines on your skin, some simple scarring that will stand the test of time despite your superficial healing. Both of these characters become utterly devastated by the actions of the other, although their intentions were to keep it simple and anonymous and sexual.

For all of the sexual controversy, I’m surprised more of the emotional content wasn’t explored. The thrill of the anonymity, the loss of Paul’s wife as a long lasting effect on him. Her meltdown and rejection of him as he begins to reveal himself to her and the stained glass menagerie shatters before her. The final act, the climax of her escaping him is an incredible build. One that I hadn’t been prepared for during the pacing of this film. It becomes menacing, something so possessed that the feeling of discomfort is very real. His obsession is grounded in their very experience that we witnessed. She is in deathly deep and cornered by him, so he’s left her no choices here.

One of the most romantic and true to love films I’ve seen. Bertolucci doesn’t do too much work for composition or lighting and leaves the settings, the city, and the characters to do their natural work. Both of these characters are able to build up callouses of denial, trapped by their commitments of their decisions and actions.

Fantastic film.